Tampa IX: One-Third Of A Century
Anyone remember reading my football preview this year? For the seventeen of you who completed it, you might remember that the final section was titled "Never Have I Ever". The point of that section: we hadn't followed an encouraging season with an encouraging season since 1989. No, really, 1989.
I made a list of every season since then that could be considered "hey, that was encouraging" and then showed what we had done the following season:
- Lou Tepper increased the win total from five in 1993 to seven in 1994, but then back to five in 1995.
- Ron Turner increased the win total from three in 1998 to eight in 1999, but then back to five in 2000.
- Ron Turner increased the win total from five in 2000 up to 10 in 2001, but then back to five in 2002.
- Ron Zook increased the win total from two in 2006 to nine in 2007, but then back to five in 2008.
- Ron Zook increased the win total from three in 2009 to seven in 2010, but then it was seven again in 2011 (actually six for Zook since he was fired before the seventh win).
- Tim Beckman increased the win total from four in 2013 to six in 2014, but then the following year (with Bill Cubit taking over a week before the first game), back to five.
- Lovie Smith increased the win total from four in 2018 to six in 2019, but then down to two in 2020.
Not one time in 32 years had Illinois football fans felt good about the result of the season two years in a row. Let me say that again.
Not one single time in nearly one-third of a century had Illinois football fans felt good two seasons in a row. Every other Power Five fanbase - even Kansas, Indiana, Vanderbilt, and Rutgers - had experienced two consecutive "that was very encouraging" seasons in that timeframe. But if we had an encouraging season, it was nearly a guarantee that the next season would be a step back.
Here's how I ended that section (and the entire preview):
Can Bret Bielema follow that with something even warmer? Well, that's the big question here. I'll just say this and then I'll stop writing and publish the preview.
If he only wins one or two games, it will be devastating but also familiar. Encouraging became a disaster. We invented "encouraging became a disaster." 2003. 2009. 2020.
If he wins three or four games, it will feel incredibly normal. Following 4-5 in the Big Ten with 2-7 in the Big Ten, or following a 5-7 season with 3-9, would feel a lot like the last three decades.
If he wins five games, especially if it's 4-5 in the Big Ten again, then I think we'll all feel the same as we feel right now. Encouraged and waiting for the breakthrough to happen.
If he wins six and goes bowling in his second season? It will be hard for me to comprehend. Turner, Zook, and Beckman all made the step forward in their third season. Lovie made the step forward in his fourth season. Going 5-7 in Year One and then 6-6 in Year Two? I don't know what that feels like.
Seven wins or more? An Illinois coach .500 or better after his first two seasons, not the typical 5-17 we're all used to?
Well, then next year's preview will be 27,000 words again.
30,000 words. Minimum.
I didn't want to end this series of ReliaQuest Bowl articles without circling back to my season preview. If you wanted to know why I predicted a 4-8 season, I was simply following a pattern that had held for one-third of a century: If we surged to 5 wins in 2021, we were almost guaranteed to win 4 or less in 2022.
Why had that pattern held? Mini surges based on experience, for the most part. Call it the Northwestern thing.
Besides 2017 and 2018 (both solid seasons), Northwestern mostly rode an experience yo-yo for the 2010's. They'd build up experience and win a lot of games. Then those players would graduate and the new set of players needed experience so they took a step back. Then those players would gain the experience they needed and they'd win. Then those players would graduate and... you get the picture.
Here's the Northwestern yo-yo:
And then this year they went 1-11, so they pulled the exact inverse of 2017 and 2018 by having two consecutive bad years. But I think you can see the pattern there. Young team in 2014, 5-wins. Return everyone in 2015, win 10 games. Lose everyone in 2016, win 6 games. Get them all back, win 9 games.
Such is life for teams on this level of college football. Experience is one way to win games over teams with more talent, but the thing about experience: it then immediately leaves. Talent stays steady (for the most part); experience has peaks and valleys. I'm generalizing but you get the point.
That's more-or-less been the same for Illini football, just less frequent spikes. Tepper, Turner, Zook, and Beckman all spiked in their third season, Lovie in his fourth. It was always this long buildup and then an equal fall immediately after. Every single time. For 30+ years.
Bret Bielema? Took over a 2-6 team after the Covid year. Went 5-7 (4-5) the first year. And then 8-4 (5-4) in year two. That never happens. It just never, ever happens.
(If you're wondering why I leave out bowl results, like with Northwestern's record and Bielema's 2022 record, it's just something I've always done. I don't believe they're helpful when comparing one season to the next. Especially now with opt-outs. So when comparing seasons and eras, I generally skip all bowl results.)
Yes, I understand how people are going to use this bowl loss. Believe me, I'm fully aware that the Negative Norm crowd is already out there peddling their "right but did this season really advance the program?" stuff. Season ticket renewals are a battleground for that crowd, and they're going to do everything they can to keep you from supporting the program in a few months.
Which is the main reason I want you to fully understand what happened this season. For the first time IN ONE-THIRD OF A CENTURY, we followed an encouraging season with an encouraging season. We won eight regular season games for only the third time since I moved into my dorm room in August of 1991. We went to a January Florida bowl for the first time in three decades.
The most important of those: we got better in 2021... and then we got even better in 2022. It shows that this wasn't just one of our "we suddenly had an experienced team and had one really good season" spikes of the past. This was competent football in 2021 followed by even more competent football in 2022.
Does that mean it's all straight up from here? Of course not. Yes, the portal helps programs under construction overcome the experience gap by providing upperclassmen in key roles, but it doesn't eliminate the need for long-term program construction. I think Mel Tucker will do some great things at Michigan State, but he just followed 10-2 with 5-7. You can't just go pull portal kids and win a ton of games with everyone else's experienced players. You still have to build a program.
And now Bret Bielema enters year three of that process. He lost his defensive coordinator and promoted from within. He didn't get a waiver for his QB to get a 7th season so now he has to start over there as well (with a redshirt sophomore, a redshirt freshman, and a true freshman). His 2021 offense finished 98th in the SP+ and his 2022 offense finished 99th. Yes, part of that is strangleball - get the lead and then apply the chokehold - but the offense is going to have to get significantly better in year three. There are big challenges ahead.
The good news? He's doing that coming off two seasons where he went 9-9 in the Big Ten. Maybe the best way to frame this is to just give you the Big Ten wins in the first two seasons for every coach since Ron Turner:
Year three for those other four coaches? They finally had their rosters stabilized and they won 4, 6, 3, and 2 Big Ten games, respectively. Average Big Ten wins the first two years: 1.5. Average Big Ten wins in year three for those four coaches: 3.75.
So if Bielema does the same - year three, roster stabilized, more of his own players than inherited players - then who knows where this could go. Turner went 0-2-4, Zook went 0-1-6, Beckman went 0-1-3, and Lovie went 2-0-2-4. If Bielema started with 4 and then went to 5, might he push to 6 or 7 Big Ten wins?
That's probably getting a little too far ahead of ourselves. We might see five players drafted in May, and when you lose that many NFL players, there's almost always a step back. 2023 will be more of a "rebuilding year" than an "everyone returns and all of the pieces are in place" year. Big picture, it's not setting up for a big surge like Zook or Turner's year three or Lovie's year four.
Still, the starting point is so much higher. As high as it's been in one-third of a century. John Mackovic built a good team in 1988 and then he built a better team in 1989 and then he kept winning. Four bowls in four years before Texas plucked him away. Now, Bret Bielema has started the same way: built a good team year one, built a better team in year two. Will he keep winning Mackovic-style? Will he go to four bowls his first four years in Champaign?
The numbers suggest it's quite possible. The fact that we've played 18 consecutive competitive games where we either won or lost a close one says it's likely. There just might be a solid college football program in Champaign, Illinois.
For the first time in one-third of a century.